THE MOST IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENT in the immigration reform debate occurred not in the Senate's debate on immigration, but rather in the Senate's debate on prescription drugs.
The back-and-forth on immigration overshadowed the passage of the first major deadline in the new Medicare prescription drug benefit program. But the coincidence of these two political events could not be better timed: The government's response to pressure for relaxing of the drug program's deadlines today might foreshadow the government's commitment tomorrow to immigration deadlines and standards.
In late 2003, the president and Congress reached a bipartisan consensus on the question of whether and how the federal government would solve escalating public angst over the cost of prescription drugs with he Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act. Like any massive piece of legislation, it was a creature of compromise. Among the compromises necessary to ensure the administrative practicality of the program, the legislation set forth a series of schedules and deadlines for enrollment. Section 102 of the act provided that senior citizens seeking to claim the benefit would need to enroll by Monday, May 15, 2006, or risk being shut out until the following November,--hen they'd be required to pay an extra one-percent increase in their premium. (That would, reportedly, amount to a couple of dollars per month.)
These deadlines were easy enough to legislate back in 2003. But as that deadline arrived this week, and newspapers reported the chaotic last-minute rush of senior citizens signing up for the program, politicians and commentators raced to eliminate the deadlines. Senator Ted Kennedy demanded that Congress "extend [the] arbitrary enrollment deadline at least through the end of the year." Senator Charles Grassley cited insufficient time for seniors to research the plans and organized a bipartisan coalition to waive the deadlines: "Good policy makes good politics, and I think this is good policy."
The New York Times editorialized that "Now that the chaotic sign-up period for the new Medicare drug program is over, it surely makes sense to extend the deadline to allow more people to join and to avoid the penalty for lateness."
But what "makes sense" to the Times and like-minded legislators today certainly did not "make sense" to Congress and the president when they enacted actual deadlines in 2003, and for good reason: Deadlines and schedules were the only assurance that a massive welfare program could be administered with any possibility of success. Hastily erasing those deadlines in order to achieve momentary political gains undermines the credibility of similar endeavors in the future. As the Washington Post sensibly opined, "[t]here is little chance now that the deadline will be extended, which is probably a good thing: For actuarial and other reasons, it makes sense for an insurance program to have a time-limited enrollment."
OF COURSE, this week saw another bipartisan block of politicians at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue attempting to convince skeptics that illegal-immigration problems could largely be solved by creating . . . a complicated set of deadlines and schedules.